There are thousands of foreign teachers living and working in the Land of Smiles. While everybody seems to know that a vast majority of these teachers are actually not qualified to be teachers, there are also a few elite educators that not only know what they’re doing, but they’re also fully professionally qualified to do it! One of these is Arabella Higgins, a 25 years old teacher born in Manchester, UK, who, for the last couple for years, has been working with Thai children towards bettering both their language and social skills. Currently, Arabella holds the Guidance Counsellor position at Keera-Pat International School (KPIS) in Bangkok, where she applies her knowledge in the field of child education.
And most of all, she knows what she’s doing! Trained in the fields of Psychology and Education, she graduated with a BSc in Psychology from the University of Leeds. Before coming to Thailand, she spent some time working as a researcher in mostly Caucasian, Multicultural and South Asian British Primary Schools investigating the development of ethnic identity representations through children’s drawings.
Speaking of the circumstances that brought her to Thailand, Arabella confessed that “My father was living here already so I had some connections within the education community. After visiting Thailand several times and seeing the ex-pat way of life, I knew I wanted to move here. I came to study for a TEFL course in 2006 and moved here permanently in March 2007.”
At first, Arabella taught at an all girl’s school, but gradually she moved back into the psychology field, by starting work as a part-time cognitive enhancement mediator. In this new position she worked with students with difficulties in their learning. On completion of a diploma in Feuerstein’s Instrumental Enrichment (Dip. F.I.E), she became Office Manager, in charge of PR and marketing as well as teaching Cognitive Enhancement courses. By now, we are looking at an all-round professional, with good ground experience in the fields of guidance and counselling.
Looking back at the moment when she really started concentrating on counselling work, Arabella recalled: “As part of my work of mediating with students with academic struggles, we began counseling sessions alongside the practical mediation. The types of students who came to us, although often extremely bright in certain disciplines, had problems with self-esteem. Many of them had been categorized as Dyslexic, ADHD, ADD, and Asperger’s among others. Dealing with the stigma associated with these disorders was part of the problem itself. A huge part of work I did is termed ‘metacognition,’ essentially involved understanding the way the brain works so you can begin to understand yourself.”
Thai schools don’t traditionally have school counselors and teaching methodologies are usually based on more collectivist ideas. Counselling is very much about the individual, and understanding that a classroom environment which is good for one child is not necessarily good for another. International schools in Thailand are now starting to concentrate on understanding individual needs and developing the potential of every student. This is not to say there aren’t fantastic teachers at Thai schools, who do fully understand their students’ needs!
Referring to her current job, Arabella said that she works with every age group in the school from nursery (1 ½ years old) to high school (18 years old): “Luckily, at KPIS, we only have 5-20 students in each grade so it is just about manageable. I do individual counselling sessions, group counselling sessions, behavioral interventions, classroom observations and guidance consultations with parents and teachers. I work with kindergarten and elementary mostly on children’s learning abilities, social skills, behavioural problems and general wellbeing inside and outside of school. Additionally, I work with high school students on academic and college counselling.”
Although she hasn’t had many parents refer their child for counselling, the referrals usually come from teachers. Some parents are a little reluctant to come and meet with the school counsellor for fear of criticism of their parenting and their child’s skills but, in Arabella’s own words, “that’s perfectly normal.” Having a child that may be slightly different to the others in their class is a very sensitive subject for every parent, especially here in Thailand where fear of losing face is a big issue. However, Arabella makes sure that “they [the parents] understand early on that I am not going to criticize anybody, and we should work together on positive strategies. We concentrate on the potential of the child, not on the current situation.”
Thai students suffer from the same problems Western students do, especially in international schools. Kindergarten and elementary students may have more social and learning issues, while with high school counselling, the work is more concentrated on academic and career achievements, as well as social issues. “However,” clarified Arabella, “the occurrence of ‘problems’ in students is highly correlated to a teachers’, counsellors’ or parents’ awareness and ability to detect problems rather than just let them slide or consider it disobedience. Therefore, it is difficult to say what is most prevalent in Thailand. From personal experience, some academic or learning difficulties may be related to a Thai students’ reluctance to stray away from text book ‘question and answer’ learning strategies. When faced with an international education system this may become a problem.”
As a researcher, what I find amazing is that Arabella Higgins doesn’t find the language barrier a problem, but this might also be the case due to the fact that she’s been working with ESL kids for such a long time that, to use her own words, she tends to “forget what it might be like back home. People always ask me this question, but I say there’s always a way of communicating a message. Most of the students at our school have a good grasp of English and sometimes it’s just reassuring to know there’s someone there that can start to understand a young person’s perspective. I see Thai students bonding with the foreigner teachers just as much as the Thai teachers all the time, despite blatant language difficulties.”
A job as a guidance counsellor in Thailand has its challenges, due to so many different perspectives and methodologies and the rapidly developing nature of education. However, it’s great that schools are beginning to understand the need for a school counsellor and are actively looking into bettering their student population’s social skills.
Initially published in Bangkok Trader (Vol. 4, No. 4, March 2010)